Of all the various disorders of the human brain, perhaps none has fascinated and terrified the public as much as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The reasons for this are varied. It may be because autistic people, especially those deemed “low-functioning,” often challenge our perceptions of human nature whenever a seemingly stupid and helpless individual reveals their astounding level of knowledge about whatever topic it is that they are hyper-focused on. It may be because of widespread myths and romanizations popularized through movies and TV shows, many of them harmful and infantilizing. Or it may be because society is finally starting to see past these stereotypes and learn the complex and wonderful reality behind the myths. In this blog post, I’d like to talk about my experiences on the autism spectrum and maybe help debunk a few myths along the way.
Notes on the Term “Asperger Syndrome”
When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a disorder that has since been reclassified within the greater autism spectrum. This move has been met with a mixed reception. Some argue that it is no different than what is commonly known as “high functioning autism.” Others argue that it can be distinguished by the fact that there are no impairments in language and intelligence in individuals with Asperger’s. Of course, autism acceptance advocates will point out that modern-day IQ tests are made by and for neurotypical people, obscuring the average ASD person’s intellect.
Another much darker reason why the Asperger label has fallen out of favor recently mainly has to do with the man the syndrome is named after, Dr. Hans Asperger. You see, Asperger, alongside American psychiatrist Leo Kanner, was the first to codify modern understanding of autism back in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Up until recently, Asperger’s work with his so-called “little professors” at the University of Vienna was considered superior to Kanner’s, mostly because he recognized a spectrum of behaviors in his patients and also, as Steve Silberman reports in his 2015 book NeuroTribes, protected his charges from the eugenicist wrath of the invading Nazi regime by inventing the term “high-functioning autism” to throw Hitler’s brownshirts off (as opposed to Kanner popularizing the now-discredited “refrigerator moms” theory).
Except it turns out that actually wasn’t the case, as evidence uncovered in 2018 revealed that Asperger actually referred at least two “little professors” that he deemed “low-functioning” to a children’s clinic known as Am Spiegelgrund, despite knowing full well that the Nazis used the clinic as a euthanasia center. It’s probably not hard to see why several people, myself included, have consequently become hesitant to associate themselves with his name in that manner. And it also makes me question whether the governments of the world should continue to celebrate Asperger’s birthday on February 18 as International Asperger’s Day.
In any case, I simply prefer to refer to myself as “autistic” and “on the (autism) spectrum” nowadays. But enough history: let me explain how the symptoms of autism manifest in me (please note, however, that I will mainly be using TV Tropes.com’s Useful Notes page on Asperger Syndrome as a template for the following section: I know it’s not exactly a medical source, but the notes they have seem to be medically accurate. Plus, it’s straightforward and clearly explained, so… yeah).
The pervasive developmental disorders commonly classified under the autism spectrum are generally diagnosed based on three criteria: difficulty in communication, difficulty in socialization, and restricted interests. We’ll examine how those diagnostic criteria manifest in me in that order and then go through some miscellaneous symptoms that the Useful Notes article also mentions.
People on the autism spectrum have often been described as having “body language blindness.” On the other hand, TV Tropes argues that it can be more accurately described as “body language dyslexia.” It’s not that we can’t see the body language being used; it’s correctly interpreting it that’s difficult. Some of us try to compensate by watching TV and seeing how characters use their body language. That usually causes other problems since body language in fictional settings tends to be exaggerated, which causes neurotypical people to think that there’s something off about us.
It’s also not uncommon for autistic individuals to have speech problems (unless, of course, they’re nonverbal). They may develop a natural speaking voice that’s too fast, too loud, too formal, or too monotone. I was lucky enough to develop a fairly normal speaking voice, even though I do have a bit of a stuttering problem like others on the spectrum. My grandfather tends to stumble over his words as well, though, so I at least have company there.
Related to the restricted interests part of the diagnosis is that, naturally, autistic people tend to struggle with conversations that have nothing to do with whatever kind of topic they’re hyperfocused on at the moment. Indeed, we don’t tend to care for small talk, since in our view, a conversation that exists just for the sake of filling silence is pointless. We don’t want to talk about the weather or want to know “What’s up?” We have knowledge we want to share, damn it!
Finally, there is the fact that autistic people have a lot of trouble with facial expressions, which may have contributed to the myth that autistic people are sociopaths. Once again, autistic people may try to compensate by learning facial expressions from movies and TV.
Of course, the difficulty with expressing emotion and reading body language is a part of our problem with socialization, as is the unwillingness to speak unless the conversation is lucky enough to steer into whatever subject the ASD individual is interested in at the moment.
Another part is that it takes very strenuous effort for an autistic individual to initiate communication with another person because we never have any clear idea what to say. Not only that, but normal social interaction is often outright physically exhausting for people like us who aren’t built for it. Thus, we often adopt a “do not speak unless spoken to” attitude that we may stick to rigidly. I’ve mastered this art so well that my family full of Trump supporters still doesn’t know that I hate the man’s guts, simply because they’ve never bothered to ask my opinion.
There is also the fact that, unlike most neurotypical people, autistic people dislike eye contact, often finding it uncomfortable or even painful. Naturally, this is another factor that often hinders the autistic individual’s ability to read body language properly. Personally, I think I’m on the lower end of the “eye contact discomfort” meter, as I usually don’t have a problem with it if a person is directly addressing me. It’s usually still a bit uncomfortable, though, especially if the person is standing right next to me.
Perhaps other difficulties with socialization can be explained by the autistic individual’s relationship with logic. We tend to focus on step-by-step answers to any problems that cross our path. This often leads to autistic individuals being very literal-minded, often telling things how we see them because we see no point in pretending that something is anything other than what we perceive it as. Indeed, this often makes us unable or unwilling to tell a convincing lie.
Speaking of which, that brings us to the final socialization-related topic I want to talk about: the autistic individual’s relationship with empathy, especially social/cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to predict other people’s thoughts, emotions, and intentions. Unfortunately, this requires a lot of “reading between the lines” regarding body language and speech patterns, which, as we have established above, autistic people are terrible at. This, combined with our inability to emote properly, often leads people into inaccurately labeling us as sociopaths.
On the contrary, however, autistic people often have a higher than average capacity for affective empathy, meaning an ability to share another person’s feelings with them. While this often makes autistic people into very morally upright citizens, it can often be overwhelming for a person, given the amount of death and disaster that affects the world every day. Empathy and logic often combine in an autistic individual to produce a very “Treat others as you would want to be treated attitude.” This can present problems of its own, though, since not everyone wants the same things. Indeed, while some people like the idea of sadomasochism as part of their sex life, I certainly don’t.
The autistic ideas of empathy and logic may often combine into a deep sense of social justice. They logically think that powerful people using their power for selfish ends is illogical and hurts far more people than it helps. Indeed, logic and empathy were what made me turn away from my family’s conservatism when Trump was elected president. They tend to assume that there was a good reason Trump got into the White House because the American political system is the best in the world and only produces good results (although usually only if conservatives are leading it). On the other hand, I refused to accept that Trump was in any way qualified for the office of the most powerful person in the world. Of course, that ultimately led to me deciding that no one person should ever be allowed that much power, and now I am an anarcho-communist.
This is almost certainly the most visible symptom of ASD, even though it is the least significant, medically speaking. Of course, a big part of this is the fact that they often find themselves fascinated by a certain subject to the point that they end up defining their whole existence around it and gather as much knowledge as they can on it to the point that they can become leading experts on it. They can even make whole careers out of these restricted interests. Temple Grandin used her insight on animal behavior, especially cattle, to create innovations to make slaughterhouses as humane as possible. Greta Thunberg has managed to channel her rage and despair caused by her autistic obsession with climate change into political activism. Donald Triplett, one of Leo Kanner’s patients who became the first to be formally diagnosed with autism, would later put his abilities with rapid mental multiplication to good use at his family bank.
Of course, it can be equally common for a person on the spectrum to end up changing their defining interest constantly. My personal experience is somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. I remember being even more obsessed with dinosaurs and other prehistoric life during my childhood years than the average kid was. There was also a period when I became oddly obsessed with the RMS Titanic (and the Hindenburg to a lesser extent). I also developed an interest in the paranormal during my later childhood, which has since developed into my obsession with religion and esoteric occult practices that combined with my love of fantasy novels to create The Divine Conspiracy. I’ve also had some low-key obsessions with subjects like music and literature crop up from time to time. For example, my family hates playing Trivial Pursuit: Classic Rock Edition with me because I usually wipe the floor with them. I also became obsessed with everything Watership Down after I rediscovered it (something you’ll learn all about during the retrospective this month).
It’s not just interests that are restricted for us, though. Autistic people are also well known for being oversensitive to certain stimuli, be it tactile, visual, or audio. Certain clothing materials can irritate their skin, for instance. Certain colors, patterns, or speeds of light can cause distress, especially for those who are co-morbid with epilepsy (which I, fortunately, am not). They can also be picky eaters, not just because of flavors they don’t like but also because certain textures can make a piece of food unpalatable, even if the flavor agrees with them. Sudden loud noises can trigger panic attacks in autistic individuals who are sensitive to noise.
While I’ve never had panic attacks or meltdowns due to loud noises, several have been problems for me in the past. I used to avoid restroom blow dryers like the plague when I was younger because I hated the noise. I also used to have such a low tolerance for spicy foods when I was a kid that I couldn’t even eat pepperoni pizza. Nowadays, I can use both without problem, although I still have trouble with spicy foods. I’m still a very picky eater today, as I still have trouble with several kinds of vegetables (although I have taken a liking to garden salads with ranch dressing as of late).
Autistic individuals have also tended not to be very “outdoorsy,” possibly due to being very unwilling to break their comfortable routines. I was born into a hunting family, though, so I tended to be much more of an outdoor person when I was younger (even though I didn’t become a hunter myself, as I loved animals too much). I tend to spend much more of my life indoors nowadays, although I usually like to walk in the woods surrounding my house now and again. I also really want to explore America’s national parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Olympic sometime in the future once this COVID epidemic finally dies down.
People on the autism spectrum often seem to appear less physically mature than others with different developmental disorders since their faces tend to be more rounded and thus more childlike. This has definitely been the case for me. I’m 25 (going on 26), and yet I still look like I’ve barely finished high school. As recently as three weeks ago, when I was showing an official at the local vaccine distribution center my ID, she was surprised that I was 25, as she would have guessed I was 18 at first glance.
Another symptom often associated with autistic people is a tendency to compulsively talk to themselves, similarly to Tourette’s Syndrome (minus the stereotypical foul language, which in real life only happens in ten percent of those with the disorder). This is especially true if the ASD individual starts daydreaming, which, as an aspiring fantasy writer, I tend to do quite frequently. Sometimes I’ll blurt out something one of my characters says in certain vignettes I cook up in my head. It’s never at the top of my lungs, though, and it hasn’t caused a major disruption… yet.
The autistic individual may also experience sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep, frequent nocturnal awakenings, and early morning awakenings. I tend to struggle quite a bit with falling asleep myself. Sometimes I manage to fall asleep within an hour of going to bed. Other times I end up lying awake for hours on end, unable to drift off because my mind is still buzzing. Either way, I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of going to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow as some others do.
Another symptom associated with ASD is a higher than average visual or auditory perception. This may be associated with the fact that the autistic brain tends to filter out fewer auditory signals than the neurotypical brain, which can be a major factor in why several autistic individuals are sensitive to loud noises. My version of this heightened perception often comes in being able to see and hear things that others around me usually don’t notice… although I’m not entirely sure if it’s because I actually have heightened perceptions or because I’m usually not interested in what people around me are talking about, so I let my eyes wander about my surroundings. Of course, I also wear prescription glasses, as my banner photo will attest, so it’s not like my senses are unimpaired in any way.
One other symptom I have that often worries me is my trouble with short-term memory.
Our issues with short-term memory usually come in the form of not being able to follow step-by-step instructions very well since the last task given to us often pops out of our head when the next task is given. This hasn’t caused much of a problem at my workplace, although I couldn’t tell you how to operate the paint mixer even though the boss has shown me at least once.
Somewhat related to this is our struggle with executive function, which means we have difficulty fully grasping the steps of certain processes and carrying them out. This is especially difficult for me since I’ve never been able to grasp how finances work (and have been somewhat unwilling to since, as a newly converted socialist, I’d much rather our society got rid of money anyway). This means I have a lot of trouble planning for the future, which makes me fear the future immensely, so I avoid it even more. I admit there is some comfort in “Indiana Jones-ing” it through life, especially given my newfound fondness for Daoism. However, at the same time, it still often feels like I’m gambling with my future “in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time…” at least, that’s how Terry Pratchett might put it.
Indeed, a lot of this may make it seem like my existence is a living hell. Sometimes, I don’t entirely disagree, especially given the capitalist dystopia I’m living under. Not only do I have to live with the fact that most of the people we put in charge of our governments and corporations are perfectly fine with letting hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people die every year just to preserve their own wealth and privilege. Not only do I have to live with the fact that there are likely more working-class people in the industrialized world (my own family included) who support them than don’t. I also have to live with the fact that my neurodivergence makes me a target for the ruling class, who would gladly throw me under the bus the first chance they get and replace me with a more neurotypical cog that can properly follow their orders.
However, at the end of the day, I still have my empathy. I still have the complete inability to have ulterior motives for the kind acts I perform. I still have impeccable attention to detail. I still have exceptional visual thinking skills. And probably most importantly, I still have my passion. I still have a desire to show my art to the rest of the world, no matter how much my inner critic tells me it sucks. I still have my drive to see this world changed for the better. I still have my intense love of what little unspoiled natural wilderness we still have in this world. And I still have unexplored horizons waiting for me to explore if I only have the courage to take that first step.